1.56 bn masks polluted oceans in 2020, claims study

About 1.56 billion masks will enter oceans in 2020, which amounts to between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution, a Hong Kong-based environmental group OceanAsia has said. These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems, the group, in its latest report ‘The impact of Covid-19 on marine plastic pollution’, has said.

OceanAsia says from a global production projection of 52 billion masks made in 2020, “conservatively” speaking, at least 3 per cent will enter the seas.

The use of PPE, in particular face masks, and to a lesser extent gloves and face shields, has become widespread and a common tool used in preventing the spread of the pandemic. The value of the global face masks market was $0.79 billion in 2019, but expanded to an estimated $166 billion by the end of 2020, says OceanAsia.

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“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection. These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste,” the OceanAsia report says.

The OceanAsia report says plastic in the marine environment can have a devastating impact on wildlife and ecosystems. Face masks in the marine environment serve as a source of microplastic and could take around 450 years to fully decompose. It says though studies examining the decomposition of face masks are limited, a recent study of plastic pollution in the Magdalena River, Columbia, found that “the degradation of nonwoven synthetic textiles was the predominant origin of micro-plastic microfibres found in both water and sediment samples.”

The design of face masks, and particularly ear loops, makes them possible entanglement risk for wildlife. In July, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK reported encountering a gull near Chelmsford with its feet tangled in the straps of a face mask. Similarly, a group of volunteers conducting a beach cleanup in Miami, USA, found “a dead, bloated puffer fish tangled in the ear loops of a disposable blue facemask.” Instituto Argonauta, a Brazilian marine conservation organisation, also reported finding a Megellanic penguin with an N95 mask in its stomach on Juquehy Beach in Sao Paulo.

In its recommendations, OceanAsia says individuals should be encouraged to wear reusable masks whenever possible. When choosing reusable cloth masks, people should follow government recommendations concerning the design, materials used, and the fit of their mask.

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